Interview with Amanda Gilbert – Meditation and Mindfulness Research

Amanda Gilbert is the Executive Director for the Sugar Stress Environment and Weight Center and a Clinical Research Coordinator for the Aging Metabolism and Emotions Center at the University California, San Francisco. Her work focuses on conducting and implementing clinical research in meditation, mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction, as well as examining how these restorative health behaviors affect our minds and biology.

As a long-term meditation practitioner, she draws on years of personal meditation experience and training to advocate for the life-changing effects of a daily meditation practice.

In addition to conducting clinical research on meditation, she is a meditation teacher to those looking to learn and start a daily meditation practice through one-on-one individualized sessions where she connects contemplative science to daily practice. Her mission is to support as many people as possible in experiencing optimum daily well-being through meditation and mindfulness.

Note: This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview. Listen to the audio above to get the full interview. 

How did you get started with meditation?

Many start a meditation practice for health reasons, or dealing with stress, or getting curious. And some start to meditate from a religious point of view. And also it is for some about cultivating meaning.

For Amanda it was about healing, physically, mentally, and spiritually from challenges she went through as a young adult. She’s been in the health and wellness field for a long time.

Perhaps there is something more. She wants to connect with herself, her intuition, her inner knowledge, her heart, and higher self. The path for Amanda has been cultivating a meditation and mindfulness practice.

Was there something, an event or moment that triggered this?

Amanda has had her moments to that were beautiful opportunities to shift, to have a breakthrough. To set yourself on a different path. For her it was more of a life path. Many books on self growth, meditation and self development. And really all the information was pointing her to meditation path.

Also, Amanda was exposed to great teachers in the medical world. One of her first teachers was Deepak Chopra. He has a book called, “Quantum Healing”. She was given that book during a breakdown leading to breakthrough period in her life.

When you approach it through biology, it really speaks to the effects and power, and outcomes of a meditation practice. So she started reading a lot of literature on what a meditation practice can do for us physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. All this reading led her down a path of a meditation practice.

What particular practice did you start with?

Amanda started with mantra based practice in 2009. Earlier she was exposed to many other meditation and mindfulness practices, her undergraduate degree was in holistic health and wellness. But she got serious about doing a daily practice. That is when it clicked for her.

The mantra practice is powerful practice for a novice. Reason is that the mantra is a way for our minds to focus on. Translates as mind-vehicle. It’s a word, similar to in and out, in breathing techniques. By combining with Sanskrit it can be meaningful.

The mantra based practices are a way for beginners to develop a strong practice. She can see that through her research and teaching meditation position.

Would you say that the mantra practice is an attention practice just like paying attention to your breath practice?

Yes, we are focusing on an object of attention. So that object of attention is the breath, or the mantra. It is intentionally placing the focus on that object.

Saying from the Buddha: You can place your attention on the object of focus, just like you focus your attention gently on a flower.

In meditation we are growing our attention/focus muscles. We are cultivating those muscles.

Did you notice any particular benefit that stood out from this mantra practice that was trans-formative, and encouraged you to continue practicing after that?

It allowed my mind to focus on something, something for it to chew on during her 30 minute morning and evening meditation. It allowed me to meditate. All of the fruits of meditation happen in those moments between the thoughts. In that space, that stillness, silence between thoughts. Between the ego having it’s way, having it’s ability to be behind the wheel, running the show.

So the benefits and outcomes are in the moments between our thoughts.

She have a tendency of an overactive mind, which was one her first barriers, or obstacles in a meditation practice. I’m just thinking, thinking. A huge string of thoughts, huge mind wanderings.

Having a mantra to focus on having my mind focus on, was the key to allowing her the freedom to move beyond thought. To move in the space and stillness of meditation.

And a way to anchor you into the present..A lot of us have mind-wanderings, like 50% of the day the average person is mentally wandering. 

Yes, very much so. One of the top outcomes that we’re seeing through the lens of research, is a decrease in rumination and decrease mind wandering. And an increase in focus and attention. This can be seen through measuring the participants subjective, psychological experience of a meditation training, as well as seeing this in the areas of the brain.

We’re seeing areas of the brain light up, that are more focused on attention, and executive functioning. We’re seeing better neuroplasticity in the brain due to meditation and mindfulness practice.

Explain neuroplasticity a little bit more.

Yes, that is the ability for your brain to change, and to start new behaviors, patterns, new ways of decision making. Cultivating new neural network pathways in your brain in order to have different behaviors and different experiences in your life.

This can be really helpful with destructive mind and habit patterns, such as depression or other destructive thought patterns right?

Very much so. That’s really what we’re seeing. The beauty of mindfulness research is that it allows you to see the changes in the brain and in the body. Past research has been focused on the brain. Those who are in the diagnosis of depression or PTSD, or any neurologically and psychologically based depression oriented diagnosis. We are able to see a shift in the brain and cognitive functioning. Also we’re seeing in the last 5 or 10 years or so a big change in the body. More recent research is focused on the body and biology.

What that looks like is:

The effects of mindfulness and meditation on inflammation, gene expression, heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, sleeping, eating habits. And of course your cell health, and cell aging. which is getting down into the minutiae of the mitochondria in the cells of your bodies.

What particular aspect of that research excites you the most right now?

Amanda’s favorite study was conducted by the center for investigating healthy minds with Richard Davidson in Madison, Wisconsin. Did anything change from an inflammatory marker standpoint, from just 8 hours of mindfulness training. They found that yes! You have a decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes from just one day of meditation and mindfulness.

Amanda and colleagues at UCSF, have just published and presenting a study of theirs. They found that a highly stressed population of maternal caregivers  mothers of autistic children who went through 12 weeks of mindfulness training, increased their total sleep time by 34 minutes by the end of the 12 week mindfulness based intervention.

And as we all know, sleep is one of the top pillars of health and resilience. Your days will be substantially better with sleep. So mindfulness and meditation do affect our biological circadian rhythms as well. Very exiting findings.

Can you measure quality of sleep as well?

Sleep disruption is how we measure quality of sleep. But it was really the total amount of sleep time. This group actually started to go to bed earlier as well. And how often do we tell ourselves we’re going to bed earlier, but then we don’t follow through it. But this group was able to shift their bed time to earlier, thus benefiting their sleep as well. What we’re able to say then, is that having a meditation or mindfulness practice is able to encourage better health behaviors. 

Any meditation tips for those listening who have sleep problems?

Yes, part of our population we’re able to see through our mindfulness mobile app, were doing some practices, body scans, loving kindness meditations and mindfulness practices. Ranging from 3-20 minutes. What we can think about is how can we reduce our stress before going to sleep? Is that sitting and breathing for 3 minutes, or guided meditation for 20 minutes. Or just having a moment of consciousness around how am I able reduce my stress, to turn off the executive functioning. That drive for the day. How am I able to settle the body?

My own practice is actually able to slow down. Amanda loves breathing meditations in the evening. Primarily morning meditation practice. But at night it is great to just slow down, or switch it up, like with a guided meditation. Whatever it takes to get a more restful and de-stressing experience.

You mention morning meditation and the importance of it. This affects the evenings as well. So this sets the pace for the rest of the day right?

Yes, when she goes to sleep at night, Amanda looks forward to the next morning practice. Meditation has changed her life, since she started meditating in 2009. Now the practice is second nature for me in the morning. I get up, have a sip of tea, or lemon water. Then she’s goes into practice minimally for 20 minutes, and more on other days. And then again in the evenings I actually look forward to this morning routine. It’s another sign that a consistent meditation practice can affect all other areas of life.

Has there been research to explore what the optimal times are for the most fruits of meditation?

That is Amanda’s own personal research interest. In the Vedanta ancient text they recommend at least 20 minutes each morning. And in primordial sound meditation they recommend 30 minutes, because it takes the body 15 minutes to biologically and physically settle down. Then you are actually able to meditate, once your body is in a rhythm of the breath. So these ancient practices figured it out a long time ago, without the hard nosed sciences.

TM also recommends a twice a day practice of 20 minutes as well. There was also studies where they found it through heart rate after 25 minutes. This is where the meditation research field is going. Her hope is to see the field honing in on the types of practice, the amounts of minutes of practice to see the shift in well-being. And to have individual tailoring to see what works best for each individual. We all have our own stories on what brought us to meditation. So there is that individual tailoring that scientists can hone in and take a look at.

And what about the benefits to mini-meditation?

Yes, that is mindfulness. Amanda likes to differentiate between formal practice (20 or 30 minutes of sitting), and moments of mindfulness. Being able to connect to our breaths, those are to her moments of mindfulness. And also outcomes of our formal meditation practice. You can actually cultivate a stronger connection to these mindful moments. During our meditation practice, we hone in on our home energy. That’s the feeling of our hearts, essentially we’re going home to our Self. You getting to know yourself so much better during those moments of contemplative reflection.

That shows up in moments during the day, where you have choice of how you respond to situations. You end up avoiding stress reactions.

So it benefits each other, and mutually reinforces each other then. 

You also a study about vacation vs retreat. Because a retreat is really going home, settling even deeper than a 25 minute meditation. 

Yes, I love this study. That study showed us a number of things, which can be applied to our own practices. 2 out of 3 of the study groups were new meditators, with zero meditation practice. We randomized half the group in a vacation group, and the other half as a meditation retreat at the Chopra center of well-being.

What we found was that novice meditators who went through the meditation retreat, 10 months later showed greater psychological well-being. Decrease of negative affect, decrease in overall negative experiences during that day.

Instead of just going on vacation, but if you go in and learn the life affirming tools of a meditation practice, then you see more long-term effects in your life. The vacation effect wears off. It’s just like buying a new car, within 2 months the joy has worn off.

The second finding was that we had a 3rd group who already had 6 months or more experience with meditation. This group was already more healthy psychologically and physically, so what we find is that the power is in the practice. We see that with experienced long-term meditators, that you will be able to  see the effects and outcomes of a daily meditation practice.

So you could say a retreat is more trans-formative, as compared to a vacation, which is more of a recharge. 

Yes, exactly. That is one of my favorite studies to reference.

Amanda’s hope is to get as many people as possible to meditate as possible. Her mission is to support as many people as possible in experiencing optimum daily well-being through meditation and mindfulness.

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